Taking the pulse of SNH.com

Published 3:40 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

During my many years in this business, I’ve come to a rather obvious conclusion about the people who work to fill the paper each day: Most of us who enter the business of journalism do it for the feeling of affirmation we get when we know people are reading our stories and looking at our photos.

There’s probably some level of desire to perform a public service in all of us, as well, along with — perhaps — a commitment to the history of journalism and the love of newspapers. But, really, it’s mostly about our needing to have our egos stroked.

One thing we all learn pretty quickly, though, is that much of what we write doesn’t result in pats on the back, telephoned “Thank you” calls or shout-outs from the dais of whatever organization that we managed front-page coverage for. A lot of it just seems to go out into the void. We know — or at least hope — that it’s being read, but there’s not always a lot of proof.

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Things are different on the Internet, though, where various tracking services allow us to learn a surprising amount of information about what we publish online and who’s reading it.

I can tell you, for instance, that obituaries are always our most-read features online. And Andrew Giermak’s story about some guys who caught a fish that turned out NOT to be a snakehead is the most well-read staff-produced item during the past 10 days.

Another way we have of gauging interest in a story is to watch the comments that readers make online. I confess that I spend some time each day doing just that, but not just because I want to see what interests our readers. Frankly, the debates, the mudslinging, the personal attacks and even the occasionally vacuous reasoning are more compellingly entertaining than just about anything you can catch on daytime television.

A small community has grown up in the comments section of our Web site. It’s often a dysfunctional community, but that’s probably to be expected, considering that they’re drawn together around news stories, a majority of which commemorate the dysfunctions we find in our society.

This community is part confessional, part soapbox, part sounding board and part free-for-all. Life happens there with the same urgency and variety that it does in the “real world.” We learned last week of one frequent commenter’s trip to the hospital for heart surgery and then of his return to the online community much more quickly than had been expected. We’ve celebrated members’ careers in education, the military, government service and the private sector.

We’ve even had at least one commentator drop the shield of anonymity that is allowed online and pen a column for publication in the printed paper — complete with name and photo. And I think he rose to the occasion with one of the best-researched reader-submitted columns we’ve published in my tenure here.

If you haven’t joined the conversation online, I encourage you to do so. As an employee here, I can’t contribute, but I’ll continue to watch the party from the outside. Just try to keep it clean — and remember that there are real people with real feelings on the other side of those usernames.